Eliminative Materialism (EM)

"Talking Skull" by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (click the pic)

Wow, I just discovered that I am an “Eliminative Materialist”.   Don’t you love when folks introduce you to new words that actually describe you accurately.  The cool part of that is that now I can more clearly discuss my presuppositions and perhaps more clearly see where I am wrong.

Here is  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on EM:

Eliminative materialism (or eliminativism) is the radical claim that our ordinary, common-sense understanding of the mind is deeply wrong and that some or all of the mental states posited by common-sense do not actually exist.

Reading further in the SEP article, you will find that there appears to be more and less ‘radical’ stances within EM itself.  And indeed I may be less ‘radical’ (an odd word choice if you ask me).  But I am clearly in the EM camp.  Heck, I have always felt that if mental experiences are explained clearly, everyone would become an EMer.  Please help me wake up!  Read the wiki article here.

I ran into the phrase at a Christian friend’s blog where he claims that one key difference between Christianity and Buddhism is that Buddhists are EMers.  I agree that a small subset of Buddhists are EMers — the intellectual Buddhists.  And I think it is key to many Buddhist teachings.  But most Buddhists do not fall in that small subgroup, but instead hold a common-sense understanding of the mind and so can’t be EMers.

Actually most people, as the phrase “common-sense” implies, don’t hold an EM position.  I think that even most atheists, just like their Christian colleagues don’t hold an EM position.  Thus, when I started this blog I pointed out that though many atheist criticize religion, they have an almost unquestioned religious stance on their view of mind which I feel feeds many of their misunderstandings of themselves and the world.

I wish I actually had a good grasp of philosophy of mind, so that I could understand the controversy.  But I don’t and doubt I ever really will.  But indeed, much of Triangulations is based on my EM stance, for I feel that the common-sense understanding of mind and self is highly mistaken and leads to many unnecessary surprises and problems.

Questions to Readers:

  • What do you feel about EM?
  • Do you know of any fantastic refutations of it?
  • Are their versions of EM you feel are actually tenable?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

17 responses to “Eliminative Materialism (EM)

  1. Yes! I think EM fits me pretty well. The older I get the more mysterious and magical this world appears to be. I’m reading a book by Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality. I’m really enjoying it. It strikes me that physicists and cosmologists are EMs also, at least in how they see “reality.”

  2. I’m sympathetic to eliminative materialism because I think “folk psychology” is mostly wrong. For example, “belief” is not a conceptually simple thing, and in many cases you don’t either “believe” or “not believe”.


    — To argue for the elimination of a mental category, you need to give at least some sort of hand-waving account of an alternative, and explain why people might have fallen into believing in the thing you think doesn’t exist. E.g. I would need to give a story about why people believe in beliefs, and what is really going on in those cases instead. (“Assent motivated by tribal affiliation signaling” might be part of the account, for example.)

    — Often it is unclear who these supposed “folk” are. Philosophers have a “folk theory” of “folk psychology” that might not apply to most people. That is, philosophers often claim that X is an entity posited by folk psychology, but no one except philosophers has heard of, cares about, or believes in X.

    — Eliminativism is so attractive that, once you start, it’s easy to get carried away and start insisting on the non-existence of things for which there is a good epistemic warrant. An interesting case is Dennett’s eliminativism with regard to qualia. He says there are no qualia (so we are all “philosophical zombies”). Since qualia are the main embarrassment for materialism, this is attractive if you are a materialist. Although arguably there is no empirical warrant for qualia, there is a phenomenological warrant, and most philosophers of mind think that denying qualia is a nihilist error. (Being prone to nihilism, I’ve tended to fall into this trap myself at times.)

    — The low-hanging fruits of eliminativism are hypothetical entities for which there is no epistemic warrant in the first place. The work I described in my last post was eliminativist with respect to a swath of posited mental representations that (1) no “folk” ever believed in, (2) there was no epistemic warrant for, and (3) were unworkable on computational complexity grounds, but (4) were the bedrock of cognitive science theories of action.

    — Usually eliminativism is motivated by materialism, but it’s possible to be “eliminativist” (in the sense of thinking that folk theories of mind are largely wrong) without being a materialist. I fall into that category. (I don’t offhand know of anyone else who does!)

  3. aly

    nice term! I don’t know much about it yet, but I like how you’ve described it here. I really like examining ‘common sense’ beliefs : )
    Quickly scanned the Boomeritis review post on your friend’s blog, really interesting. What’s going to happen with Yellow?

  4. @ Dan:
    Yep, I’d guess you are an EMer. I liked the comment about physicist — indeed!

    @ David: Brilliant, thanx. But I will have to digest parts later — lots there. But two quick responses:

    (1) on Belief:
    I agree that “belief” is much more complex than common-sense tempts us to deduce. Indeed, this is why “Beliefism” religions strike me as very odd — religions that say you must believe the right thing to gain celestial rewards.
    But likewise, many Atheists, when arguing against Christianity, buy into the “right” belief model in a weird way. They claim that the Christians have irrational beliefs — and thus imply they have no irrational beliefs. It strikes me that these atheists don’t understand how minds work. Beliefs (if we allow such critters) are probably better described with a multivalent metaphor – we hold contradictory beliefs. I fumbled with that idea here 2 years ago.

    (2) On Materialism
    I can’t really make sense of “materialism” or “supernaturalism” or such class of terms. Getting a handle on those seems awkward. Though I may use the word “supernatural” as a convenient way to speak of what I “don’t believe in”, I realize it is sloppy and fuzzy. But I use it to say I don’t look for spooks to explain things that go bump in the night. 🙂

    @ Aly:
    Meanwhile, glad you enjoyed. Thanx for stopping in. I think you would really enjoy some of David’s writings. The post you viewed of his was pretty intense — his others can be much more simple and understandable for us mortals. 🙂
    And may I suggest you ask about “Yellow” over at his post. He would love having you visit and he is a very gracious, thoughtful blogger — I can almost guarantee you would enjoy encounters to any dialogue you had with him.

  5. @ Aly, Sabio – thanks for the encouragement!

    @ Sabio – re (2) – Yes, part of the reason I am not a materialist is that I’ve come to think the natural/supernatural, material/immaterial, physical/non-physical distinctions are sufficiently obscure that I can’t buy into one side of them. In practice, materialism really means “No spooks!” But I can’t even get clear on what it would mean for me to be (or not be) a spook – never mind what other classes of spooks there might be.

  6. @ David:
    I almost agree with what you wrote there, but still to fuzzy for me to say that. But what I can say, is that the reflex to dismiss phenomena with spooks stories when investigation can show “natural” causes which can then help us change our behavior is good. It is those “spooks used for dismissal” that I abhor. Think about lightening, bacteria, and more that were once dismissed as the workings of gods. But I’d imagine you largely agree with me about such supernatural dismissal spooks even if you wouldn’t word it that way.

  7. Yes, I agree, anti-spookism is useful as a heuristic method, even if it’s not clear what the metaphysical claim is. That’s because people so often reach for spooks as the “explanation” of first resort.

    Eliminative materialism is anti-spookism with regards to our own spookiness.

    For example, the representational theory of mind, which is the dominant orthodoxy in cognitive science, is an attempt to get rid of the spooky homunculus. It replaces the unitary homunculus with an endless collection of “mental representations”. This was thought to be a good move because the AI guys claimed that they had an explanation of how mental representations were material. Unfortunately, it turned out that we didn’t. Representationalists lost interest in AI when that became obvious, but they didn’t give up on their representationalism.

    I think mental representations are just as spooky as the homunculus, and having elebenty billion spooks is not better than having one. So I tend to be eliminativist with respect to them, and I think the representational theory of mind has been a big old wrong direction and waste of time.

  8. how does this tie in with Existentialism? i think i can connect some to this, but like Descartes, i probably don’t go far enough. i’ll do more reading and get back with ya.

  9. @ David :
    Unfortunately “Theory of Mind” is a phrase for the ability to attribute belief and feelings to others. So the conversation can be confusing. But are these the Models of Mind (MOM) that are the big ones?

    (1) Representational MOM appears piece of Computational (MOM): Minsky and his crew, right?
    (2) Connectionism
    (3) Situated Cognition

    Either way, when I read these I get very lost. I think in a simple way, I have an Apophatic Model of Mind — I can tell you what I think Mind is not much more easily than I can tell you what it is.

    What is your present MOM? What do you think is not a waste of time?

    @ Ghost
    It has nothing to do with Existentialism as far as I am writing. But then I don’t really get this stuff.

  10. Like most philosophy, EM as a theoretical position is a meanings quagmire where more and more words of murkiness are brought forth as if they clarified rather than muddled the meaning. Most of us simply reach a point of saying “O….kay” as if by going along with the ever increasing opaqueness we are somehow richer for our patience.

    A relevant example is what is meant by ‘brain states.’ I don’t know what that means and I cannot find any clarity in the Stanford site to help me get a better handle on it. Is it a condition? A process? An activity? Yet upon this notion that such a ‘thing’ – a brain state – is real is built an idea that what is happening (regardless of what it is) is not material.


    I have a hard time with clarifying this link between a cause – some neurologically related ‘state’ (presumably) – and a ‘non material’ effect in that ‘state’. In fact, we are told that eliminative materialists insist that ordinary mental states can not in any way be reduced to or identified with neurological events or processes.

    They may insist but is that insistence true?

    If I don’t know what a ‘state’ is – a noun? verb? adjective? – then how on earth can I presume to know how it can or cannot be ‘reduced’ by neurological events?

    Well, I’ll simply concentrate on changes and see how that works.

    Something tells me that by means of an neurological event like an aneurysm – regardless of what prior brain state it might have been in (again, not knowing what that actually means) – I’m almost positive that such an event will adversely affect that brain’s neurological events or processes. Rather dramatically. So the brain state can be affected by such an extraordinary event, (I know… the word ‘ordinary’ has been used and I have to account that, too) means it can be affected. Now we have draw into question into question if the same can be accomplished with a more ordinary event. My thought is that it can.

    If we accept that dreaming is an ‘ordinary’ event – and we look at the brain activities and processes from before and during let’s say a nightmare – I think we can agree that by any way we measure whatever this brain state is we can show changes from some prior brain state to a current brain state that is different. If that’s not the work of a physiological cause within the brain itself, then I don’t know what we’re talking about. A ghost in the brain perhaps?

    Do we really want to go there if we’re using cause and effect by means of a mechanism? Or are we happy to sit back and insert spookiness into our inquiry?

  11. Mmm… I agree with @tildeb that philosophers often get bogged down in arguing about things that aren’t well-enough defined for argument to be productive.

    “Mind”, for example. I think that’s a mostly-misleading category. The “situated” crew (in which I’d include myself) basically reject it. That doesn’t mean we think there “isn’t a mind”, but that it’s the wrong way of talking about the phenomena. If you start out dividing things into “the mind” and “the body”, you’ve already got a problem that is probably insoluble. So better not to do that in the first place.

    Once you start talking about “the mind”, representationalism is probably pretty much the only theory going. It’s not clear that connectionism is a theory of mind—it’s more a theory of brain computation. (Some connectionists might disagree.)

    I try not to think about this stuff, after putting a lot of work into it in a former life. It doesn’t go anywhere (there’s been few if any new ideas since 1990), and it doesn’t have any implications for issues non-philosophers care about.

    What’s not a waste of time? Who knows… I hope my vampire novel isn’t.

  12. JS Allen

    I agree that a small subset of Buddhists are EMers — the intellectual Buddhists. And I think it is key to many Buddhist teachings. But most Buddhists do not fall in that small subgroup, but instead hold a common-sense understanding of the mind and so can’t be EMers.

    I think this is correct. Additionally, many lay Buddhists will happily repeat back the doctrine that “the self is an illusion”, but don’t actually seem to believe it in their day-to-day lives. This is very common with lay Christians and Muslims, too, who talk the talk on finer points of doctrine, but don’t walk out the implications of that talk.

    Regarding the responses to eliminativism, I don’t think there are any real refutations. You can show that something like Nagasena’s chariot argument is self-refuting, but there are more sophisticated arguments for eliminativism.

    Eliminativism of self is almost identical to solipsism in this respect. Solipsism is the philosophical position that the self is the only thing that can be shown to exist — all other people are illusions. In other words, “You’re all just figments of my imagination”. When someone insists that you’re a figment of his imagination, there is really no way to prove otherwise. To believe in solipsism, or to reject solipsism, requires that you understand the implications of the belief, and then take a leap of faith.

    Likewise, there is no way to prove or disprove eliminativism of self. The only worthwhile responses to eliminativism are those which show that eliminativism is self-refuting, or at least self-undermining.

    For example, if someone claims that logic, reason, and intentionality are illusions; you can attempt to argue that their view is self-refuting. In making the argument that these things are illusory, the person depends on reason and perhaps even science. If reason and science are illusions, then how can we trust the conclusions that were arrived at through reason and science? If the conclusion of reason and science is that reason and science are illusory, then we can’t really be certain of that conclusion. The conclusion might still be correct, but it would only be accidentally correct — we have no way to know for sure.

    There are many other variations of this tactic, but the basic point is that you can’t prove or refute the types of elimintativism we’re discussing. Most people don’t even think about it, but the people who think about it a lot will end up just making a brute choice one way or the other. They’ll think through the implications of each belief, and then decide which one they prefer.

    You can see Vallicella doing exactly this brute-force “as for me and my house” decision at the conclusion of his paper:

    Thus it is quite wrong to think of Buddhists as giving a reductive theory of the self in terms of bundles of subpersonal constituents. The Buddhist theory is an eliminativist theory. It is not a theory that identifies the self with something such as a bundle of perceptions; it is a theory that eliminates the self.

    I for one resist this elimination. It seems to me that I am relatively a self, that my being is relatively permanent, and that my life is relatively satisfactory. There’s plenty of dukkha in my life, but my life is not dukkha all the way down. I will be told that I am living in illusion. I will respond that something has gone wrong with Buddhist theorizing. The problem, as it seems to me, is an exclusive and unjustifiable reliance on analysis as the way to truth. The commonsensical suggestion that a chariot is a whole of connected parts, and not a mere sum of parts, was rejected on the ground that this connectedness cannot be found by analysis, as indeed it cannot. But this is to presuppose that only what can be found by analysis is real. We have, however, no good reason to accept this presupposition, and a very good reason to reject it. We ought to reject it because the project of analysis itself presupposes the existence of wholes which are more than mere sums. It is only a unitary whole which needs analysis, and yet no such whole can be exhaustively understood by analysis. Thus the very project of analysis presupposes that there are unitary wholes which cannot be exhaustively understood by analysis. Every analysis presupposes a prior synthesis.

  13. @ JS Allen :
    You said,

    “the self is an illusion”, but don’t actually seem to believe it in their day-to-day lives.

    That statement has three important levels of analysis for me.
    (1) The first you mentioned. People talk doctrine but don’t act it. A few weeks ago I visited a highly respected Buddhist teacher and with disciples who had trained with him for decades. I was not overly impressed.
    (2) “Self is an illusion” would take lots of unpacking. I like, “Self is not what you think it is.”
    (3) Besides insight into the nature of mind, it is crucial to let it permeate one’s life ALONG WITH correct cultivation of emotions and action. Such integration into one’s life of healthy thought, healthy emotions and correct understanding is a huge project == no matter which tradition (relating back to what you observed about #1).

    I think the philosophy of Buddhism is abused if it does not support method — Practice. I think you’d say the same of Christianity, no?

  14. I think the philosophy of Buddhism is abused if it does not support method — Practice. I think you’d say the same of Christianity, no?

    Yes, that’s so important. Practice should reveal philosophy, but practice sometimes conceals philosophy.

    “Self is an illusion” would take lots of unpacking. I like, “Self is not what you think it is.”

    I agree. This is common ground between Buddhist, Christian, and atheist materialism worldviews. All three insist that our common-sense concept of self is untrustworthy; the difference is only in how each prescribes to respond to that fact.

  15. @ JS Allen
    (1) “Practice sometimes conceals philosophy” — not sure what you mean here. But I will guess: Is that the enemy crossing over into the Narnia side in CS Lewis’ story? In other words, his practice is correct but his philosophy is wrong?

    (2) I’d love to see a post on your site where you describe (succinctly) how you see these three worldviews responding to the observation that “Self is not what you think it is.”
    That would be fun.

  16. But I will guess: Is that the enemy crossing over into the Narnia side in CS Lewis’ story? In other words, his practice is correct but his philosophy is wrong?

    That’s exactly what I was thinking of! The flip side of this would be the “Christian” who acts exactly like a Christian should act, but does it out of a desire to be a “fine upstanding leader” in his local community. His true philosophy is to be self-serving and a big shot, but his actions conceal that fact from himself and others. He really convinces himself that he is doing what he does out of love and obedience of God. I think this is common in areas where the Christians control the powerful positions and advancement opportunities.

    I’d love to see a post on your site where you describe (succinctly) how you see these three worldviews responding to the observation that “Self is not what you think it is.”

    I need to think it through some more. My gut reaction is (very, very succinct):

    “Oh, crap, I was wrong about everything I thought about myself! What should I do?”

    Christian: Repent! Lay down your weapons and submit to God’s authority! Model yourself after the new Adam, and you can become like Him.

    Buddhist: Learn from this! With wisdom and practice, you can learn to let go of the self.

    Atheist Naturalist:: This proves that we shouldn’t jump to hasty conclusions. More science is needed!

  17. Skeptnik

    To the extent that understand this, I think I am EM, but that may be a figment of my imagination or misunderstanding.
    It seems to me the our “selves” are composed like a sentence such as subject/predicate or noun/verb. There is our body, and then their is what our body does. The behavior, consciousness, subjective experience is the function of our biochemistry and it’s processes.–Skeptnik

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